Book review: Write More, Publish More, Stress Less!

Write More, Publish More, Stress Less! Five Key Principles for a Creative and Sustainable Scholarly Practice.
Dannelle D. Stevens
Stylus Publishing, 2019

I have often considered doing book reviews on my blog, or book recommendations on my website, but have not done so because I have trouble giving positive reviews. I’m critical. Even those books that I like best are limited enough that I can’t give a review without discussing negative stuff.  In addition to being critical, I also want to respect the work of others: I don’t want to give someone a low score, so I generally don’t do reviews. (But if you the reader would be interested in seeing me review something, let me know!)  In this case, however, I like this book so much that it’s very easy to recommend to scholars who are struggling to write.

Write More, Publish More, Stress Less! Five Key Principles for a Creative and Sustainable Scholarly Practice. shares many of the ideas I think crucial, and uses them and does a great job of developing them into guidance for scholars. 

Just starting with the title, I was excited about this book. The subtitle’s phrase—“sustainable scholarly practice”—is one that I have used often in my own writing. A quick review of almost anything I have written about writing will show the importance I place on the view of writing as a practice. I usually talk about “healthy” and “positive” practice, but often use “sustainable,” too.  More recently, I have been writing about dealing with anxiety-induced writing blocks, so the main title’s “Stress Less!” is also in line with my current interests. The idea that a scholarly practice is “creative” is also an idea I have discussed recently in this blog. 

The book’s five key principles are:

  • Know yourself as a writer
  • Understand the genre of academic writing
  • Be strategic to build a sustainable writing practice
  • Be social
  • Explore creative elements in academic writing

Each principle was accompanied with excellent, detailed practical suggestions that present scholarly writing as a practice that encompasses a wide range of different but related activities.

To single out one aspect among the many that I like: Stevens talks about scholarship as a conversation, which is a central perspective of my recent book, Literature Review and Research Design: A Guide to Effective Research Practice. She repeatedly cites another book that frames scholarly writing as a conversation—They Say/I Say by Graff and Birkenstein—which  I also like.

Following the five main principles, the book dedicates several chapters to different kinds of writing projects—personal research journal, book reviews, conference proposals and presentations, journal articles, and books—all of which offer good advice. After those chapters is one of the chapters I like best: the chapter on handling a revise-and-resubmit (with first author Micki M. Caskey). Using feedback well is a crucial part of scholarly writing, but it’s also an area where emotions run high, and many people struggle. A harsh comment can trigger paralysis. Caskey and Stevens provide good perspectives on how to approach feedback, and excellent detailed suggestions for analyzing the feedback and planning a response. This is the best advice on using feedback I have seen, including what I have written on the subject in this blog and in my books.

This is an excellent book, and probably can help almost any scholar trying to get their writing going in the face of pressure to publish. It offers a detailed view into the many activities that scholars pursue in order to succeed in academia—a real sense of the fabric of a productive academic writing practice—which makes it an excellent long-term resource for graduate students thinking about academic careers. 

Having said all that, I will offer a word of caution. I would hesitate to give this to someone struggling with anxiety. For some, I think it could be overwhelming. For me, at least, I would have found it overwhelming earlier in my career, and even now it triggers the social anxiety that was the main cause of my leaving academic institutions to work privately (with a relatively small number of people). There is great advice in here that, if followed, would definitely would lead to less stress in the long run, but if I were giving this to someone struggling with anxiety, I would be cautious to frame it as a toolbox—something from which to draw ideas when needed, without necessarily trying to use everything in it at once—to guard against getting overwhelmed by all the different suggestions.  

Sophistry vs. Reason and Partisanship vs. Principle

In my previous blog post, I lamented the absence of logical certainty and the problem created by the absence of objective truth, where each person/group believes that they hold the truth and that therefore their political choices are necessary and correct while the choices made by others are based on falsehood or error.

I lament this unavailability of objective truth particularly because I believe there is a fundamental reality—that even if we cannot recognize or discover objective truth, there is a real difference between truth and falsehood.

Because of the political nature of knowledge—because people act on what they accept to be true—political actors have motivation to control knowledge that is disseminated in order to manipulate the behavior of other people.  This is obvious on the large scale: political propaganda is often deceptive. And on the small: people lie to shape the behavior of others (“I didn’t cheat on you, honey. I swear!” is meant to deflect anger, for example).  In this light, although we may not be able to find objective truth, we can certainly recognize at least one dimension on which we can differentiate truth from falsity.

Honesty vs. Deceit

Some people try to deceive, and I don’t want to focus my attention on them, that’s why I didn’t title this post “honesty vs. deceit.”  Some people willingly and knowingly try to obscure what they actually believe is the truth.  Take the tobacco industry, for example.  We know from the record that has been made public, the tobacco companies actively and publicly promoted cigarette smoking as healthful, even while their internal documents clearly indicated their knowledge in the deleterious effects of their product. Or take Exxon, whose scientists internally agreed upon the dangers of climate change in the 1970s, but whose public discourse was to promote doubt about those very conclusions. In these cases, the companies involved presented ideas to the public that were at odds with information that they had internally.

Cases of intentional deception are sadly too common. But I don’t really want to talk about intent so much as I want to discuss issues relevant to recognizing patterns of argumentation that are not based on reason or principle and hence are often used to avoid reason or principle.

Sophistry vs. Reason

This blog is mostly aimed at discussing ideas to help academics negotiate academia. In that context, I want to talk about the presentation of ideas and different things that one can look for as good or as problematic in the work of others, and things to avoid as a matter of principle.

There is a difference between arguments built on reason and arguments built on sophistry, and regardless of the whether or not there is an objective truth, the difference between sophistry and reason can often be recognized. A good speaker or writer can often effectively hide sophistry, at least from casual glance.  The art of rhetoric is often disparaged for its role as a tool for obfuscation—a matter of sophistry not reason—but rhetoric can also be used in service of truth (or at least the intention to tell the truth rather than to deceive). Even if you believe in the truth of your message, you may still struggle to get others to accept those ideas, and persuasion is valuable.  Understanding how to convince an audience is worthwhile.  But some of the tools of persuasion can be deployed to both honest and to deceitful ends, while others are generally only deceitful.

One well-known tool of rhetoric that falls largely outside the bounds of reason is the ad hominem argument: which is to focus on the person who makes a claim rather than on the claim itself.  This can work in two ways: it can be used to attack a claim by arguing that the speaker is generally untruthful, or it can be used to support a claim by arguing that the speaker is generally truthful. The story of the boy who cried wolf is an insight into the issue of the ad hominem argument. Once people have decided that the boy is a liar, they do not check his claim that there is a wolf, even though there was, in the end, a real wolf.  A liar can make a claim that is true. And a generally honest person can make a claim that is false.  It is reasonable to consider the veracity of a speaker (or lack thereof) as an interesting piece of evidence indicative of the truth or falsity of a claim.  It is sophistry to consider the veracity of a speaker as the only indication of a claim’s truth, especially if there is other evidence that can be used to judge the claim in question. If someone tries to avoid discussion of the actual claim and instead they try to focus on a person, then they’re probably engaged in deceitful sophistry. If a claim’s veracity is in doubt, an answer should not be sought in reference to the person who made the claim.

Partisanship vs. Principle

It is well-documented that in situations that should involve reasoned judgement, people show strong biases related to people involved.  This is known as reactive devaluation.[] So, for example, one study in the 1980s showed American participants an arms treaty between the US and USSR and asked them whether they approved of it. One group of participants was told the plan was proposed by Ronald Reagan, one group was told it was proposed by unnamed policy experts, and a final group was told it was proposed by Mikhail Gorbachev.  The same plan was shown to all groups.  If people were making their decision based on the principles laid out in the treaty, then all three groups should have had similar approval rates. The results showed 90% support amongst those told it was proposed by Reagan, 80% support in the group told it was proposed by policy experts, and 44% support in the group told it was proposed by Gorbachev.  The same exact plan got a vastly different reception on the basis of partisanship.

I don’t think decisions should be made on the basis of who your friends are.  Or at least, I think that partisanship—supporting your friends attacking your enemies—should not be a sole consideration when making plans.  For all my concerns about the limitations of research and the general limits of human knowledge, I believe/wish/hope that decisions—mine, yours, and those made by groups, including political bodies—should rely heavily on actual principles, not on partisanship.

There are times when making a decision based on friendship is appropriate. If you decide to go to the restaurant your friend wants even if you read a really bad review, go for it. The ramifications are small. If you’re a researcher, however, and you ignore your data to support some friend’s work, that’s a very different thing altogether.  And if you’re a policy-maker, and you reject actual evidence and your principles for the purpose of supporting your ally, that’s a gross violation of basic ethical behavior. If you tout the principle of honesty or fairness, but then put aside those principles for your friends, then you are abdicating principle in favor of partisanship.  This general observation is obviously applicable to politics, but it’s also true in research.

In research it may not always be partisanship—desire for fame and money may prompt researchers to abandon principles—but whatever the motivation, it’s important to try to return research discussions to the principles that provide a foundation for research.


As I said in my previous post, I lament the absence of objective truth on which all can agree.  But I still believe that there are foundations on which people can build that will help ideas and discourse rise above the level of partisan sophistry while striving for the elusive fruits of principled reasoning.

Pursuing principles—and focusing on principles, like the principle of testing claims based on evidence, not on the character of the person who made the claim—is one way to both move towards shared ideas and shared knowledge nd a way to recognize when others are engaging in sophistry rather than partisanship.

American Sutra

On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which gave the military legal authority to designate areas, “from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.” It’s a sweeping power—“any or all persons…in his discretion”—allowing the military to select who was free and who was not, with none of the due process guaranteed by the US Constitution.

The power was used to target Japanese Americans, to force them from their homes and into concentration camps—camps surrounded by barbed wire, guarded by the military, in desolate locations, where they were forced into hastily built barracks. Most of the 110,000 thus incarcerated were American citizens. Many of those who were not, were long-time US residents who had been legally denied the right to apply for citizenship due to their race/national heritage. It is a great stain on the American promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

For the Japanese American community, today, February 19, is the Day of Remembrance, the annual recognition of the anniversary of Executive Order 9066.

For the rest of the American community, it is a bit of history that would be well to learn, lest we repeat it, or perhaps because we are currently repeating it.  In 1942, the Axis military forces presented a real emergency, but targeting innocent people was no worthy use of resources in that war.  Today, the president has declared that there is a national emergency (when there is none), and is using that emergency to put people in concentration camps (the recent spending deal, to which Democrats agreed, included money for 50,000+ ICE detention beds), as well as to build a wall whose only real use is symbolic.

Over the last several years, the history of the Japanese American community has been brought to life for me by the work of Duncan Ryūken Williams, whose book American Sutra, is officially released today.  The book is based on historical research started almost 20 years ago, when Professor Williams, a student of Buddhism and Buddhist history, and a Buddhist priest, discovered an original manuscript journal written by a Buddhist priest during his incarceration at Manzanar, including extensive notes for sermons.  Those notes led to his hearing the oral history of a girl, then age 10, who returned to her home from school one afternoon in December, 1941, to find her father being beaten by the FBI, while her mother sat watching with a gun held to her head by another FBI agent. And these stories led to others. Professor Williams interviewed those who had lived through the camps; he gathered journals written by camp residents; he examined the extensive literature already published on the Japanese American incarceration; and he studied governmental and military records. Professor Williams, given his background, was naturally concerned with the religious aspect, and it happens that in all the extensive literature on the Japanese American incarceration, little was interested in Buddhism and the role Buddhism played in this history.  Williams’s history tells the story of how the US government and US public  discriminated against Buddhists on the basis of religion, the story of how Buddhist organizations and traditions were shaped in these events, and the story of the many who found strength in their Buddhist faith.  The book gives a sense of the broad scope of events, and, through the many first-hand accounts that it includes, a feel for the experiences of those who were there.

In 2011, I began working as an editor for Professor Williams, starting with reviewing a chapter on the experiences of early Japanese immigrants to the Americas, then intended as a short preliminary chapter to the book on Buddhism in the Japanese incarceration.  That chapter has since been entirely eliminated, with its material now planned for a separate book.  Over the years, I have seen all sorts of excellent material that made up Williams’s research but that had to be excluded simply because there was too much good material if the book was going to get published. The book that Harvard published is an excellent book—the best work I’ve ever helped create—but I’m not sure that it couldn’t have been better to have been about 50% longer. As an editor and writer, my general tendency is to think that the best way to improve writing is to make it shorter.  American Sutra is a happy exception to that rule; the material on which it was built was so strong that it could have been better for being longer.